Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge . . .
In these opening lines, Owen explodes the idea that fighting for one’s country is sweet and fitting, which is what the Latin title of the poem (from an ode by Horace) means. There is nothing fitting or sweet about these soldiers or their situation. From the poem’s beginning, Owen inundates the reader with deliberately anti-heroic images that relentlessly condemn war. Instead of bold, brave men fighting a glorious war, we are faced with diminished fighters who are likened to beggars and old women (“hags”). They are not strong, but weak: they can’t even stand up straight and are knock-kneed. They seem to be sick, because they cough.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
There is a lyrical beauty in this description by the speaker with his gas mask on, seeing through its “misty panes” of protective glass the soldier who has not gotten on his gas mask in time. The green fog of the gas is compared to a sea, and from the safety of his mask, the image quickly turns to horror as the speaker sees his fellow soldier “drowning.”
“As under a green sea” is a simile, because it uses the word as to compare the gas exploding around the weary fighters to a sea, but the second half of the line is a metaphor, a comparison that does not use like or as. Here, the reader is hit powerfully with the image of the man likened to someone drowning. We can imagine him gasping and struggling for air as the gas, like water, fills his lungs. The imagery of “misty panes” and “green sea” describes a grisly reality. Owen may even be alluding to the line in Macbeth when Macbeth returns from murdering Duncan and says the blood he has shed will make the green seas red.
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
It is difficult to break up the poem’s final stanza, as it is a single complete sentence. Some of the most powerful anti-war imagery occurs in the first four lines of this octet. Owens does not shy away from describing the horror of the man dying from gas poisoning: we feel his intense pain as he is jolted in a wagon, helpless, the sound of his breath “gargling” through the blood in his “froth-corrupted lungs.” The alliteration of the hard c sounds in cancer and cud—combined with the simple, direct similes in the line—together convey intense bitterness and disgust, as if they are spit from the mouth of the speaker. The audience may want to turn away but cannot.
After the shock of this powerful imagery, Owen ends the poem on his message. The speaker informs “you,” either the reader or an individual person bent on expressing false ideas of the glory of war, that if they had actually seen war—which Owen has just let them glimpse—they would not repeat the lie that it is sweet or fitting. Owens implies that wars only happen because people lie about their reality. His poem is an attempt to tell the truth.